Episode #17 – Ten Common Questions About GTD

We hope you enjoy this very special Q&A conversation between David Allen and Senior Coach Marian Bateman, interviewed by Rick Kantor. They answer ten of the most frequently asked questions regarding GTD, including “How do you set priorities?”, “What do you do when you’re interrupted constantly?”, and “How do I get back on track when I miss Weekly Reviews?”

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Welcome to another episode of Getting Things Done, GDT for shorthand. My name is Andrew J. Mason and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey learning the art of stress-free productivity.

Recently, we’ve introduced a new segment of this podcast entitled: One Question with David and we thought it would be fun to take an entire episode loaded with GTD Q&A.

So today, we have a very special conversation with Rick Kantor, asking David Allen and Marian Bateman ten questions regarding GTD, including: How do you set priorities? What do you do when you’re interrupted constantly? Or: Do you have any tips for staying on track after falling off the weekly review wagon?

Now if you’re just joining us on this podcast, we encourage you to go back and check out a few of the previous episodes with guests like Charles Duhigg, Daniel Pink and the Simpsons writers. Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there’s literally hundreds of other interviews, available as part of GTD Connect, so head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast, and click on GTD Connect to start listening and learning from the community today and hang out until the end of this podcast for a significant discount code when you decide to join.

Without further ado, here’s Rick Kantor, David Allen and Marian Bateman for Ten Questions About GTD.

RICK KANTOR: Hi, I’m Rick Kantor and we’re here today to talk with David Allen, the author of the bestselling book Getting Things Done; The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and Marian Bateman, welcome to both of you, Marian.

MARIAN BATEMAN: Thank you. Delighted to be here.


RICK KANTOR: Today we’re gonna go through some of the most often asked questions about productivity and achieving work/life balance. These questions have been compiled from people, both those working with the Getting Things Done system and people out there who are just looking for ways to control some of the overwhelm and overload sense they have of their lives.

One of the questions we hear most often is something that goes like this: Things have changed in my work and life and I feel overwhelmed. Is there hope?

How would you answer that?

DAVID ALLEN: Well, since I’m in the business, of course there’s hope. I mean I have to let people know that and there really is hope. I think the good news is is that there actually are definable behaviors and definable and doable and implementable techniques that are not hard to do that actually give us a sense of sort of getting in control of this, instead of feeling buried by it and uh those can be done. We’re not born doing those things. They do need to be learned and need to be practiced, but they’re easy to implement.

MARIAN BATEMAN: Overwhelm, from my point of view, comes from not having your agreements defined with yourself. So what happens is you have sense of being flooded with information. You’re not really sure what’s first, what’s second, what’s third – eh – you’ve got stuff coming at you from every corner and you have no way of knowing where to begin.

The beauty about GTD or learning Getting Things Done is it provides a structure for you. Its like, “Wow! I can turn from feeling overwhelmed into feeling in charge about my work and my life. This is a big win!”

RICK KANTOR: So you could actually have too much to do, too much on your plate, but still not feel overwhelmed?

DAVID ALLEN: I think that there’s a sense of always more to do than we can do. If you think about it, it’s like well that’s either infinite opportunity or infinite stress. It’s kind of half-empty/half-full is the glass. Like you can only really do one of those things at a time anyway, so how many undone things you have is really not the issue as long as you’re, as Marian said, on doing sort of what you know you should be doing, given all those options and all the possibilities. I think the biggest problem that most people have is identifying where the stress is coming from and as we’ve uncovered the necessity to uncover and discover and clarify and codify, if you will, what are my agreements, so I can see them very quickly? Then I can start to identify where the pressure’s coming from and as the ultimate way out of this is to be able to renegotiate your agreements with yourself, look at it all and say, “That’s okay that I’m not doing those 600 or 200 or 800 things right now”, but you better know what those are.

You know, any good therapist where people show up and generalized, “I’m – you know – things are awful!”

“Well what exactly is awful?” So how do you identify what that is, but that’s very difficult to do if you haven’t got a good system in place to manage your commitments and keep that inventory.

MARIAN BATEMAN: It’s still brand new that it really works to have your thinking externalized, that there is great freedom in being able to see all of your successful outcomes in front of you and then I can turn on a dime and renegotiate my agreements, come back to center, start again, and you may begin that process over and over, depending on how much – what the surprise factor is in your life, but having a system that enables you to respond quickly and effectively, sure creates that sense of freedom.

DAVID ALLEN: And don’t get us wrong. You don’t get rid of challenges and problems in your life by implementing, you know, a good system. What it does is it clarifies what they so that you can negotiate with them, through and around them appropriately.

So you wouldn’t want to get rid of challenges. Essentially people say, “Gee David, stress-free productivity, can you really have stress-free productivity?”

And the answer is, “Well yes and no. No you can’t have stress-free productivity in the sense that anytime you want to do something that hasn’t been done yet, you’ve created a dissonance or a kind of a stress or a tension, if you will, in your life.

I want to be out of the room – I’m not out of the room. That’s gonna create tension, or I want to have a gazillion dollars and I’m in debt. That creates tension. Whether that’s a negative tension depends on whether you’re sort of moving appropriately toward what it is that you’re committed to finish or complete in some way that you feel like “I’m on” in terms of where I’m going.

And so that kind of tension in your life actually creates expansion and expression and growth, so you wouldn’t want to get rid of that, but the problem though is that people oftentimes can’t negotiate towards that cleanly and clearly and feel sort of victims of too much because they didn’t – just haven’t gotten control of what it is.

So having a big list and understanding what all you’re committed to, doesn’t suddenly make life seem easy, but you wouldn’t want it that way. But what it does is it makes it negotiable and I think that’s the big key.

RICK KANTOR: Well that brings us to the second question, which people often ask, which is: When I get everything out and on my lists and I think you say that you’ll find that you have something like 70 to 100 projects and 120 next actions. When they get all that out there, they don’t know how to prioritize and I know that Getting Things Done system specifically does not use an A, B, C priority code for instance. So the question that comes to people is: How do I prioritize what’s on my plate?

DAVID ALLEN: Well that’s a big question. As a matter of fact, I’ve just been working on a whole seminar, just simply about managing multiple priorities and it’s a whole day’s worth of information to look at all the different things that we need to look at. It’s not a simple answer. The reason we don’t use A, B and C is that’s too oversimplified a context for how to evaluate your priorities.

You know, as soon as you go to sleep, you just said taking care of the health of your body is more important than anything else in your life, ‘cause you decided to go to sleep instead of have a conversation with your spouse, or work on your strategic plan. So every time you do something different, you’re making a priority decision. The trick is is to feel comfortable that what you decided to do was the appropriate thing.

So understanding how you set priorities, you have to, first of all have the appropriately strategic perspective; where are we going, what are we doing, what’s important to us? That multiple horizons of that, both personally and professionally. But it also requires you to be, what I call, tactically intelligent. You need to say, “Well look, I’m organizing my friend’s wedding, do I have it under control? Have I organized this project, essentially something that has my attention, in some coherent way so I know what to do about that?”

And then, not only do you have strategic perspective called how important is that project, and tactical intelligence called have I thought through that project appropriately? But then you need to have the work flow process set up in your life so that you can maintain a clear focus as you’re going through your day and you can also execute seamlessly. I need to know what’s next on all of these projects, be able to see all of that so: Wow! I’m at phone, I have five minutes. What could I do right now?

If you had a list of every single thing you needed to so that you could do at a phone that would only take five minutes that would come out of all of that thinking, you’d probably pretty much trust what you do. But if you haven’t, if any of that’s missing, pretty hard to trust that your judgment call is what you really need to be doing.

All of that’s to say, there’s a lot of variables and complexity that go into, you know, the criterion that we would use to decide my priorities right now. But it’s just not that simple, like a good simple structure might lead you to believe. So it’s much more complex. So it’s not that we don’t coach or teach priorities. What we do is just make sure that you don’t try to over structure in a false way what your priorities really are and all the different variables that come into play when you have to make a judgment call at any moment about what to do.

MARIAN BATEMAN: That said, if I was brand new and I was listening to that explanation, I might think, “Wow, I don’t know that I could ever understand this.” Or, “It sounds too big or too complex”. What David is describing is actually a natural process that we all do all the time. What we’ve been able to do though in the GTD methodology is really create a very specific structure that allows you to go through that process that he was just describing in a very step-by-step way, so that when you learn this thinking you automatically do that. It just makes it conscious, so you’re moving from unconscious and unaware to conscious and aware about what you do naturally. It’s just not as simple as A, B, C, because we’re not that simple.

DAVID ALLEN: I think a big thing that we coach people on, that takes a big step in making it a lot easier to set priorities is just getting everything out of your head and getting it in front of your face. People aren’t stupid. I mean, if everybody truly looked at a list of every single phone call they needed to make in their life about anything, it probably wouldn’t take anybody longer than 10 seconds to decide which of those calls would give them the highest personal payoff that they made that call, versus some other call on that list.

So I don’t think that we lack the intelligence to be able to make priority decisions, but right to begin with, if you don’t have all the options out in front of you, it makes it a lot tougher to really trust your choices. So a lot of our initial training of people is just to make sure that all the stuff gets out of your head and in some objective format. So that’s gonna move you way forward.

Now that’s not to say that there’s not a lot more sophistication that we all could use to think – what’s our strategy, where are we going, what are the core values in our life, and those are changing because as we all mature our values or our awareness of them changes and matures. So it’s a constantly shifting game out there to get better and better about deciding which of those phone calls is the most important call to make. So it’s not that you just solve all the problems simply by getting them out, but it’s an important laying of the groundwork and that just makes a huge difference, just right there.

RICK KANTOR: Well the third question we have kind of goes in the face of the externalizing process, what you say is getting it out of your head so that you can look at things and that question is, “I feel like the fire hose of reality, that I have everything all planned and in order and then I go into my office and suddenly, I can’t get to my lists, I can’t get to my to-do’s and my projects because I’m interrupted constantly.” What do you do about that?

DAVID ALLEN: Actually you wouldn’t want to get rid of interruptions, because interruptions are oftentimes where the great source or seed of creative, spontaneous, new and really real priorities oftentimes come in the unexpected forms like that.

Very successful senior executives will hardly talk about being interrupted. That’s actually how they manipulate and manage their world is the next thing they don’t expect coming at them on the phone or walking in their door and it’s a great opportunity. That’s why though, those kinds of senior executives will get very pristine about making sure there’s no residue, making sure the deck is clear and making sure they don’t have a lot of things pulling on their psyche, so they are free to give that interruption the attention it deserves. So I guess that’s one way of saying, one of the reasons to implement a good collection, processing and organizing system is so that it allows you a lot more freedom to then engage spontaneously with things coming towards you.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to deal with an interruption if you got a clear deck, then if you got a bunch of backlog that’s pulling on your psyche.

MARIAN BATEMAN: One of the problems, I think, if you don’t have a system like GTD is every time you’re interrupted, you’re trying to re-invent the wheel. So you’re coming back, you’re writing everything down again, you’re literally reinventing your life and your work over and over again. So the beauty about having a system where there is a structure, is that you can literally create a placeholder and move to what is important in the moment and whether your work is at home or whether it’s in the workplace, surprises happen all the time and they’re a part of life. So it gives you the ability to decide in the moment: What’s the best use of your time and energy?

DAVID ALLEN: And Rick, that question of interruption is really – it’s interesting in that it brings to the fore one of the most mundane techniques that we teach, is the most critical for that. Marian just mentioned it and that’s being able to manage placeholders.

In the very simple thing, at the low tech level of having a physical in-basket on your desk and having pads of paper right there, so when you’re working on something, if the phone rings and interrupts you and you decide to pick up that phone instead of whatever you were doing, you just throw what you were doing back into your in-basket, pick up the phone, make sure you’re taking notes on the phone call. When you hang up the phone, somebody walks in your door, interrupts you, take the notes from the phone call, throw them in your in-basket. The person walks in and assuming that you know how to process your in-basket, which is another story and assuming that you actually do process your in-basket so it gets to zero every 24 to 48 hours, which is another story, but if those behaviors are in place, then some part of you, interruptions are just, “Ah! I can handle that – I can handle that – I can handle that – because I’ve got placeholders for them and I can turn and walk free and clear with my psyche not being disturbed by that because I know I can pick those things up where I left off and then deal with them in my own timing.”

If you don’t have a system you trust, every interruption that you know you still need to do something about, tends to have to be handled in the moment it came to you, because you don’t trust your system will hold it for you.

So you know you have to deal with it, but you know you should be doing something else, so then you go deal with the interruption and then you feel frustrated because you know you should be doing something else and the simple technique to know how to grab placeholders for things, truly – and I’m quite serious, just with pieces of paper and a pen and your in-basket, is your salvation.

RICK KANTOR: Well a corollary question and maybe you’ve answered it, but I’ll ask it ‘cause it’s here, is: I know you coach some of the top CEOs in the country and the world and some very senior executives. What behaviors do they perform, what do they do that I don’t do? How are they able to manage multiple companies and the number of priorities and projects they do that I can’t do? Can you tell me what those specific kinds of behaviors or attitudes are? – is the question.

DAVID ALLEN: I know people have probably done more studying rigorously in terms of some of those behaviors that I have then I have. Mine is anecdotal and I certainly read about it and seen it validated from my own experience in working with the senior people that I worked with is that those people have a tendency to make decisions about things on the front end and then park or place the results of that decision making into trusted people and systems.

Oftentimes they’ll just have staff where they can make a decision, hand it off to staff and they’ve got people that they trust and you know, a system that they trust, but they – I think a common denominator is that they don’t allow a lot of non-decision stuff to lie – clog up their psyche, that they’re almost ruthless with how they get stuff off their mind and into the system by making decisions about it and where it needs to go. I mean that tends to be a tendency. That sort of self-management, executive style, where I, something comes in, I make a decision about it sooner than later and then I park that result into some good trusted place so I don’t have to sit there and be chewing about it while somebody else is trying to get my attention and that ability to stay free, no residue, front end decision making I’d say is probably a real – real critical piece of that.

MARIAN BATEMAN: That said, I know that we’ve worked with a lot very, very successful CEOs and you know, C-level people that do not necessarily uh think – they’re terrific at what they do, but they have a lot of stress doing it. Even though you’ve arrived at that level doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not an art of work that you could benefit from learning.

DAVID ALLEN: I often say, the definition of a successful executive is those who solve bigger problems than they create. But sometimes that equation can be in question, but you know, so there’s many of them still have a big improvement opportunity in terms of how well they do that.

And you know, being organized is not the essence to success. I think following your heart, your intuition, making great judgment calls, being at the right time and place – I don’t know, good karma, whatever it is, there’s a lot of other factors that could be – what one would call success. If you said, maintaining a sustainable relaxed productive life and work style, I would say, that to me is a large format of what I would call successful and those are the kind of behaviors, the kinds that we coach and work with about you know, capturing, clarifying, organizing, you know having good systematic approach, manage the inventory of all of those things and no residue and being ruthless, essentially being seamless and squeaky clean about commitments.

RICK KANTOR: Well I notice in your list of capturing, clarifying, organizing, you stopped before what the next question brings up, which is: Somebody who employs the Getting Things Done system, which specifically talks about every week, having a weekly review so that you’re reviewing what your commitments are in your world. And in your life and this person writes: I don’t seem to be able to accomplish my weekly review every week. Do you have a system or some way that I can get back on track with doing my weekly review?

DAVID ALLEN: You know Rick, that is probably the most common uh – not so much a complaint but the most common frustration for people once they begin to catch how powerful implementing the Getting Things Done methodology is and probably any good system that really sort of relieves the pressure and lets you feel more focused, etcetera. But they require behaviors to maintain them and one of the requirements it that you have to come back and reflect and review on your system and care and feed it and make sure that it stays current.

See a lot of the value of Getting Things Done methodology is being able to offload off your psyche the job of remembering and reminding. In order to do that though, you can’t fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you’ve looked at what you need to look at as often as you need to look at it and if you’re not doing that, that’s not just the weekly review, but if you’re not looking daily at your calendar and you know you need to, then some part of you is gonna be bothered by that all the time.

That’s why I say, you know, you have to train yourself that there are behaviors that you do that then get your mind to stop that sense of, “Gee, I should be thinking, I should be thinking – what should I be thinking about?” A lot of people are thinking about how they need to be thinking about what they need to be thinking about, because they actually don’t finish the exercise and we figured out what you actually can do that finishes that exercise. You need to get the strategic plan off your mind. You need to get your projects off your mind. If you’re not working on them, just being on your mind for the most part is gonna be a distraction. It’s not gonna be a help. But in order to get it off your mind, you’ve got to put it in front of your face, step up to the plate, get current and say, “Where am I about that? Oh, that’s the next step. Oh, I can’t do anything about it ‘til they get back to me. That’s fine. Put it to bed.” And that just won’t happen in your head. Life is much too complex.

So I think you know, it’d be nice if we were born doing those behaviors but we’re not. We have to train ourselves to become much more aware of a) that we have those pressures and tensions and b) that those kinds of reflective and reviewing behaviors are the ones that get rid of it.

MARIAN BATEMAN: There are some ways you can trick yourself too when you’re learning to do a weekly review. I always suggest: marry it with something that you enjoy, so if you like listening to music, if you can create a beautiful environment for yourself, if you know someone else that’s trying to do their weekly review, ask them to buddy up with you. So even the practical things that – it’s like if you’re going to exercise, if you just at least put on the clothes, you’re more likely to go out and do it. So give yourself permission to use those tips and tricks when you’re beginning.

DAVID ALLEN: There’s a funny thing and it’s not just about the weekly review. It’s really about staying on with the system but it applies to this – to the weekly review behavior and habit as well. And that is, if you’re still trusting your mind, not your system, then you won’t be motivated to do it. So one of the best tricks in the world is to truly jump off the end of the pier and put everything in the system so you have to go look at the system to know what to do.

One of our indicators of you being black belt in this martial art of Getting Things Done and the martial art of work is when you have to look at your calls list to know who to call, because it’s not on your mind, but then you have to go look – I’m at a phone, who do I have to call? If your mind has still got that list, you won’t be motivated to go do what you need to do to maintain it. So offloading the job of remembering and reminding to your system and then, you know, enough so that you then start to trust it and then have to trust it, that change in behavior can take a while. So people need to lighten up a little bit and not feel like because I know this is easy to do and I should be doing it – it takes quite a bit of habit change to get to that place.

If you’re at the place where you’re just doing a monthly weekly review, you know, you’re way ahead of the planet. So you just keep going and keep going and just more and more start trusting the system instead of your psyche uh and that will then – the more you do that, then it’ll speed up the process of that sticking.

RICK KANTOR: And I know David, one of the things you’ve shared with me, which I found most helpful in my own weekly review practice was – you’ll probably remember this, you said something about the price I pay if I don’t do the weekly review, how often I’m actually doing it. Can you repeat that?

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, well the problem is if you’re not really doing a weekly review, you’re doing a weekly review all the time, but you’re never really doing it. You just know you should be and so you’re sort of thinking about what you should be thinking about, what you should be thinking about and you can’t get that monkey off your back until you actually sit down and finish the thinking.

So it’s like if you’re not reviewing any of these things, you’re reviewing them all the time, but not really, not fully doing it. So you’re sort of being a failure all the time at what you know you should be thinking about, the way you should be thinking about it, if you don’t build a systematic approach that gets it done.

RICK KANTOR: Yeah, that was a great incentive to actually do it.

I have a question here about Getting Things Done methodology and personal home life. In your system you don’t differentiate between work place and home to-do’s and action lists. Why is that?

MARIAN BATEMAN: Well your mind doesn’t separate those things. You know, I always say, well, if you’re gonna be woken up at 2:00 o’clock in the morning, you’re mind doesn’t go, “Well I’m so sorry, I won’t wake you up, this is a personal item.” Ha, ha, ha.

So give yourself permission to integrate your life completely and that means usually one system and allow yourself to externalize your thinking for all of your life, not just part of your life.

DAVID ALLEN: We do make distinctions in the system about where you want to be reminded about things. Uh, in other words, I don’t need to be reminded about things to do at home that I can only do at home unless I’m at home, so indeed I don’t want to be having in front of my face all the things I need to do in my life all the time. As a matter of fact, we coach people exactly the opposite. Actually you should only have in front of you only the things you could possibly do right now.

The problem is is that you’re likely to think about something, about any of these things anywhere, so you need a capture capability about any of your life anywhere, because that’s where these things show up and then once you process and organize them, then you need to be reminded of things if you just want to be efficient, where you could potentially do those. You need to be reminded of your errands when you’re going out for errands. You need to be reminded of things to talk to your boss about if they’re sitting in front of you. But if they’re not, get those out of my face. We got enough to deal with.

So we’ve discovered over the years that it’s not about really personal versus professional. It’s just like, look, where can you with the least amount of effort, manage this thought? And what do you need to be reminded of? Like, you don’t need to be reminded of the bill you need to pay at home when you’re at work, as long as you’ve got a system at home, then you just go home and that’s where you do it. But you know, again, so it’s not so much that there’s a system that combines them. Just our systematic approach just says, “Look, where’s the thought, where does that mean, how can you not have that thought more than once and what do you need to be reminded of most efficiently, where do you need to see it?”

MARIAN BATEMAN: Yes, let me clarify that. I wasn’t saying you need to have one system, but just the concept that you’re a whole person not a half person and you can choose your organizational preference. It’s just there’s tremendous value of getting it all out of your head.

One thing I say when we’re coaching is: Would you like to trust 100% or 80%?

DAVID ALLEN: And to Marian’s point, many people are just not used to combining those things in their psyche. I mean, many executives that we coach, their big ah ha is to give themselves permission after we work with them to go home and create a system at home for all the stuff with the same kind of rigor that they set up their professional world, ‘cause a lot of them, their personal life’s kind of gone to hell in a hand basket, because they didn’t focus on their personal life.

Many people have very successful behaviors but they’re not aware of those behaviors, so they can’t translate them to other areas in their life, so you know, many people have successful behaviors at work but they don’t apply those into their personal life. But, as Marian says, we – you know, those behaviors and those things you work with are universal things, so once you catch that then you have the freedom and you probably would want to.

A lot of people get very excited, they go home and create a home office and to manage all their stuff, really because all of those things are as much impinging on them and getting those off their mind is as important as anything as well.

RICK KANTOR: Uh, this next question, the person feels like they have their organizational systems intact, they’ve implemented a lot of the Getting Things Done methodology, but they just don’t ever seem to be able to get to the creative part. They don’t seem to be able to make enough time to be creative or do this strategic planning.  Do you have any coaching on how best to be able to find time for that?

DAVID ALLEN: A lot of the feedback over the years has been even that people start to implement our stuff and really get a good personal tactical system on a daily basis, starting to work the thing and they’ve got their list and their head is pretty clear with the day to day, but their next level would be what you’re talking about. How do I now move up to making sure that I’m looking at 20, 30, 40 thousand foot kinds of things like I’m looking at the other stuff. It’s more subtle.

You know, when we talk about stuff, meaning the things that you have attention on that haven’t been clarified yet and sorted and parked in the appropriate places, uh as you move up the horizons of focus, they get more subtle.

If I say, “How are you doing about health?” You know, “How are you doing about relationships? How are you doing about parenting? How are you doing about your assets?”

People go, “Oh yeah! Oh that’s been bugging me, but I didn’t write it down on a list because it wasn’t that obvious.” And then you know you get up to well, what’s really, really, really important to you? Or where do you really want to be five years from now. You start to think at those levels and its subtler kinds of open loops, if you will. They’re still the same kind of open loops that if you catch the GTD methodology, you would have caught them as soon as you were aware of it. So oftentimes it takes a little maturity and a little sophistication and a little experience with the process to start to recognize those more subtle kinds of things that you would want grab.

Like, “Well I need to be more creative”.

“About what?”

You know and, “Oh yeah, I need more time to plan …”

“Right, so what’s your next action?” So you get down to actually starting to structure real actions and real formats for your creativity, just like anything else.

MARIAN BATEMAN: We also use the term “psychic ram”. In other words, well you only have so much available. And if you feel like you’re drowning in e-mails or those pads of paper around you or the meeting notes, it’s pretty hard to think, “Wow, I’d sure love to plan…” X or Y or Z …“activity.” So one of the approaches that we take is to collect all of that, then to process and organize it, make decisions about all of that. That results in freeing up your creativity, so you have more space internally available to even begin to have those discussions that you want to have.

DAVID ALLEN: I think there’s a personal thing too. I think different people have different personal styles. I know for me, it took a number of years to learn that I need to give myself time at the end of the day to do nothing and wander around with no agenda. That there’s a part of my creative process that ties to that kind of non-activity and non-intentional focus, but I had to focus on that, because it’s very easy for me to get wrapped around my axels just like anybody else and I’ve had to just be aware of that and just so again, another good reason to implement my own stuff. And we do eat our own dog food, you know. It’s like I got to go implement my own GTD so that I can clear my head, so that I truly can just walk around for an hour and not have any agenda, ‘cause that is truly where some of my most creative stuff shows up.


Uh, this is a very common question I get and it has two sides to it. The one side is: I’ve read your book, but I just can’t seem to get started. And the flip side of it is: I seem to have fallen off the wagon.

How do you best coach people on either of those?

MARIAN BATEMAN: So if you’re a beginner, one of the things we recommend is to learn the art of workflow. So there’s a lot of resources out there for you, our website is terrific, there’s free articles, there’s the book, attend a seminar, contact us and we can support you in coaching. All of this is designed to support you in learning the stages of workflow. So you can start small. Collect just the area of your desk. Target a place in your home. Separate out what’s action, what’s reference, and then begin to give yourself the gift of learning this methodology.

For those of you who are more advanced GTD users and you’re feeling like what I call you’re flat lining. In other words, your systems seem like you’re not relating to them anymore. Chances are you may have moved on in your thinking but not given yourself the gift of your own time to really reflect and integrate those – whatever those new ideas are or new directions are into your current systems. So wow – jump start yourself with a weekly review or a mind sweep so you can move in to making that alive for you again.

DAVID ALLEN: I think a key is recognizing if you’re a beginner that you don’t need really any new tools. I think if you’re a beginner a key is recognizing that you don’t need new tools. It’s not some foreign thing like a foreign language or technology that’s unfamiliar. These are familiar things you’re already doing. You probably have some version of an in-basket, you have a mailbox – that’s already an in-basket. And you’re already doing a lot of these behaviors. What our information does is help you format that in such a way where you can get your arms around it, where there’s a real set of things to go do that automatically kind of get you up onto the game and into the game.

You do need to dedicate some time to it, so we would recommend that you know a block of time is a good thing to do to where you sit down and actually get something of our methodology, get a sense of how to get started with it and block out some time to insert yourself into it. It’s kind of like you don’t want to just rearrange just half a kitchen. So sometimes if you really get into this, you’ll want to give yourself enough time, and oftentimes that would be you know, somewhere, at least a half a day where you would want to sit down and dedicate to it. But you can start with, as Marian said, you can start small, you can just start in a small space and start to practice some of these things.

Some of the keys that we’ve come up with, like the Two Minute Rule, any action you can take in two minutes, the first time you see it, you should do it right then. You can start implementing that right now. So it’s not like you have to have the whole thing before you know all these parts can be very useful, just in and of themselves, so becoming familiar with what they are and giving yourself a little bit of time appropriately to insert and start to implement some of that stuff is the way to stick the wedge you know, into the system and start going.

And I would recommend for people who have fallen off, it’s true that oftentimes we’ve just jumped ahead of our system and we need to catch up. So usually that’s time to block out some time as well and just clean up the system, get rid of the old dead work in there and get rid of the musty things that have – should have been marked off a long time ago, reassess whether things should really be on your list or not and catch up. Usually what’s happened is that your head has started to become your system again, not your system. So again, you need to offload, you know, do another really good mindsweep and get the stuff out of your head and then refresh everything almost from scratch. It won’t be from scratch. A lot of them will still be alive and vital, but you just need to become more conscious about it.

RICK KANTOR: This person writes that: I visited your website and I read about your seminar and you mention about horizontal and vertical focus. Can you explain what that means?

DAVID ALLEN: We talk about horizontal focus as being a way to get control and vertical focus as being a way to maintain perspective and those are two critical elements to really managing yourself. I need to make sure that I’m looking at the right thing at the right time and have the right focus at any point in time, you know, whether that’s a meeting or your life, or what I’m doing in my job, whenever I need the right focus. But at the same time, you know, once I have that focus, I also need to, first of all, clear up my life so that I have the ability to focus. If you got 300 e-mails or 3,000 e-mails, yelling at you that you don’t know what they mean, it’s kind of hard to focus appropriately. So the horizontal control is really more about getting control about just all the stuff that’s on our desk, in our life, in our face and knowing how to manage those things and make quick decisions about them tactically, so that we can organize those and that’s our collect, process, organize, you know, kind of procedure where you take incoming and you know how to capture it and you know how to then put it somewhere and then you know how to make decisions about what it means.

What the horizontal doesn’t do is then lift you back up to what’s the strategic plan and what’s important to your life and the various vertical, essentially altitudes that you need to go to. So you really need both perspective and control and sometimes control is the first thing you need to get because it’s hard to have perspective if you’re out of control. So that’s why we tend to focus initially when we work with people on the horizontal piece and then once that’s intact, you have both a clearer head and you also have a better ability to implement the things that you focus on. Then it’s a lot easier to lift up and think about the bigger game and the bigger picture stuff.

MARIAN BATEMAN: Most people experience tremendous relief when they allow themselves to collect everything they have attention on. So imagine just getting all out of your head. So once you’ve got that in front of you, then the part of you that is the executive internally can make decisions on all of that, rather than just reacting to what’s showing up. It’s a very powerful experience.

RICK KANTOR: People don’t find it overwhelming to write all of that down?

MARIAN BATEMAN: Well I often get the question when we’re coaching, it’s like, “Wow! Does everybody have this much stuff?”

And I smile and it’s like, “Yes they do.” It’s amazing the power of the human mind and how much we really can hold internally and I think it’s a very common reaction. People are very surprised how much they’re carrying in their head. So sometimes yes, there’s a sense of – this is amazing, but what’s really empowering about our work and I know that’s a buzz-word out there, but we don’t talk about that a lot in terms of empowerment, but it’s a direct result of learning this work, is you then can engage with each item that you’ve just written down and decide what to do about it.

It’s like, wow – there’s a lot of freedom in saying, “You know, I’m not gonna do this activity.” Or, “Yes, this is what’s important to me.” And it’s very hard to make those decisions if they’re not in front of you, because a lot of it then is unconscious and that to me is what really just is a tremendous energy drain.

DAVID ALLEN: It’s true, it is very overwhelming and if it’s not managed in an appropriate way, the mind cannot deal with it very effectively and that creates numbness. Very simply, if people combine in stacks, reading material they want to read and reading material that should thrown away and reading material that should be filed. If it’s all in the same stack, you’ll be numb to the stack because it’s too complex for the brain to keep having to resort that every time it looks at it, so it just creates a psychological buffer to it. So many people have buffered their lives tremendously because there wasn’t clarify in terms of meaning and context for their commitments about their stuff. So a lot of our methodology helps people clarify what those commitments are, so they’re sorted appropriately, so the brain can relax and refresh itself again, instead of being numbed out to the confusion.

So yes, it seems awesome to begin with, that’s why people have numbed out to it. But kind of the way out is through. You don’t get rid of the pressure by numbing to the pressure. You have to make it more conscious, but then also park it in appropriate places, so then it will relieve the brain’s job of having to constantly keep rethinking it.

RICK KANTOR: Marian, you mentioned freedom in your answer and this last question specifically asked that. It says: I’ve embarked on other time management organization type systems in the past and I feel like they constrained me. Is Getting Things Done system different?

MARIAN BATEMAN: Yes it is different and one of the reasons it’s different, it’s not really about time management. One of the things we address is, well if you have eight hours, it doesn’t magically become nine hours, but what can happen is you again can learn to put that part of you that’s in charge about well what do I really want to do with those eight hours? So learning the GTD methodology enables you to prioritize the most effective use of your time and that results in freedom.

So what our work is about is: Yes, there is a discipline. Let’s be honest here. It’s like the discipline then results in the freedom. The beauty of that though is that there is a structure that you can learn that provides a sense of being relaxed and in control about your work and your life.

DAVID ALLEN: There’s a wonderful quote from Winston Churchill. I won’t do it justice, but something like, “The first 25 years of my life I was after freedom and the second 25 years of my life I was after order, and then finally I discovered that freedom comes the order.”

So there’s a lot of truth to that I think, that you don’t want to constrain yourself, the structure is only there for freedom. As a matter of fact, anytime any of the structures we recommend to people if they’re gonna create any kind of a constraint, then we say, “Stop! That’s enough. We don’t want to create constraint with the form.” But you know again, usually the form is there so that we do have the freedom and like I talk about the line in the center of the road is a structure that people usually don’t complain about because what it does is it gives me the freedom to not have to worry about people driving into me. And so I’m not thinking about the line, so I don’t think about my systems, I’m using my systems. I only think about the system when something is feeling un-free and then I need to shore things up in my system so I get back to the freedom again.

So people often ask, “Well how much of this do I need to implement?”

I say, “Well is your head empty yet?” ‘Cause that’s the coolest place to operate from and if it’s not, there’s probably more you need to do, because if it’s on your mind, it’s probably not getting done and it’s probably not organized appropriately. Your mind is still trying to be your system and it just doesn’t do that nearly as well as a good systematic approach can manage.

MARIAN BATEMAN: Most of the people that we coach or that are introduced to our work through the seminars or the book, I think they are just amazed at the relief and the sense of energy that comes forward, when they get things out of their head. Because they are not used to being aware of how much they’re carrying internally.

RICK KANTOR: So for people out there listening who are reminded by what you’ve said, of the power of it, if you were to give them one next action, something that they could focus on today as they’re listening to this, to bring them some relief or back to the well, what would that be?

MARIAN BATEMAN: Well it sounds like a simple question of course, but it would depend on where you are in your own learning curve with GTD. For those of you who are more advanced it might be giving yourself the gift of a weekly review. It’s like give yourself the gift of your own time. You know, look at your systems again, energize whatever you’ve created so far by collecting again and getting everything out of your head.

For those of you who are just beginning, it might be, wow – give yourself the gift of just learning one part of our work. First separate your reference and action, or just start reading the book, or perhaps it’s just picking one article on the website, but just know that this is an art and like a language it can take some time to learn, but there’s tremendous results if you give yourself that gift.

DAVID ALLEN: I’ll give people a very simple but a very subtle challenge and that is to start to pay attention to what has your attention. There’s a message there, so what’s on your mind, why is it on your mind? If it’s on your mind more than once, that probably means there’s something you’re not being as responsible – that is able to respond about it, as you could or should be. So start to pay attention to what has your attention and then start to, you know grabble with or deal with those things in such a way that it’s starting to move you in a constructive productive way about it and you’ll find that especially implementing the Getting Things Done methodology that once you start to get it out of your head, if it has your attention, start to identify it and then ask yourself the right questions about it, park the things in the appropriate places and then you know stuff tends to move. But I think the first, the first piece is you got to start to realize what is it that does have your attention and as simple as that sounds, it can subtler and subtler.

RICK KANTOR: That’s great. Well thank you for your attention today and for sharing with us, both you Marian and David everything you’ve shared today.

DAVID ALLEN: Our pleasure!


CONCLUSION by Andrew J. Mason: Incredible conversation and more podcasts episodes to come. If you are interested in hearing so many more interviews like this and so many more resources to help you get things done, head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast, click on GTD Connect and use the coupon code podcast to check out for significant discount.

Well that wraps it up for this episode. And now that you’ve listened to this podcast, what’s your next action?




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